Dr. Mandy Cohen has been on a national tour. The new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she aims to rebuild trust in that troubled agency at a moment when Covid-19 cases are rising again and the Biden administration has begun a new vaccine campaign.
She has her work cut out for her. According to new survey data, 69 percent of Americans in May 2023 said they had confidence in scientists to act in the public’s best interest, compared with 86 percent of Americans who told the Pew Research Center in a similar survey that they had confidence in scientists in January 2019. Meanwhile, vaccine skepticism has become one of the most divisive political issues of our time.
How did we get here? Many see Americans’ anti-vaccine and anti-mask attitudes as only the latest expression of a longstanding science denialism prevalent among Republicans. This anti-science mentality, the argument goes, stems from an anti-government ideology that took root in the Republican Party during the 1980s and has matured into antipathy toward not just government but science as well. Basically, the populist skepticism unleashed by Donald Trump is the logical successor to Ronald Reagan’s small-government conservatism.
Yet Americans’ changing attitudes toward science in recent years reveal a rather different — more complex and, frankly, unsettling — picture.
It is not simply that Americans disagree about particular pandemic policies or that some distrust particular expert institutions. Instead, many Americans, especially but not only conservatives, have grown highly distrustful of institutions of all kinds, creating fertile soil for conspiracies and other extreme views to take root.
This, in turn, raises the disturbing prospect of a new politics polarized not so much around public policies but around trust itself — and the public figures who successfully mobilize trust or distrust. Restoring faith, therefore, may prove vital for a functioning society. To get there, experts must consider how and why so many Americans now consider them and the institutions they represent to be unworthy of their confidence.
Traditional small-government conservatives are market oriented, trusting private industry over the public sector to meet society’s demands. In general, they favor less regulation than liberals. For instance, a familiar free-market criticism of the Food and Drug Administration is that it can be overly cautious, preventing (or delaying) lifesaving medicines developed by the pharmaceutical industry from reaching consumers out of a disproportionate concern for potential harmful side effects.
Thus one might have expected Republicans to embrace the mRNA Covid vaccines developed during Operation Warp Speed. Not only did vaccines offer the surest path to easing pandemic restrictions, but they were also a private-sector innovation — sponsored but not fully directed by the government — under a Republican administration, no less. Moreover, the mission succeeded in part by streamlining the kind of F.D.A. regulatory hurdles Republicans used to criticize.
Instead, of course, many conservatives became highly distrustful of Covid vaccines. Invoking the very precautionary logic Republicans once rejected on free-market grounds, skeptics dismiss mRNA vaccines as experimental and dangerous, claiming they were deployed too hastily and without adequate consideration of their risks.
Such worries are not limited to prominent skeptics or right-wing media personalities. According to the new survey data, from the Survey Center on American Life at the American Enterprise Institute (the nonprofit where I am a senior fellow), Republicans overall are much less likely than Democrats to be fully vaccinated against Covid. They are also much more concerned about the “serious adverse effects” of vaccines in general and are less likely than Democrats to accept the overwhelming scientific consensus that childhood vaccines do not cause autism.
The Republican drift from a market-friendly worldview isn’t limited to Operation Warp Speed. The survey found that Republicans today are as skeptical of research produced by industry scientists as their counterparts on the left. And they are much more likely than Democrats to say corporations are promoting “harmful” genetically modified organisms or pressuring the F.D.A. to prevent “natural cures” for cancer and other diseases.
None of this means the G.O.P. has suddenly become the party of Big Government. Republicans still often couch their criticism of public health policies in the language of individual freedom, and some of the first political protests of the pandemic opposed business closures on economic grounds. Republicans also remain far more skeptical of regulation than Democrats, even as they grow more distrustful of industry.
Yet conservative attitudes toward science since the pandemic do not look like an expression, however exaggerated, of traditional small-government conservatism. Instead, they look like a thoroughgoing skepticism of societal institutions writ large, a skepticism that is neither pro-government nor simply anti-government.
There is empirical support for the idea that declining trust in science is a function of institutional distrust in general. Our survey found that self-reported confidence in institutions including governmental, news media, academic, religious and scientific organizations is positively correlated with vaccination status: Nearly nine in 10 Americans in the top quartile of institutional trust report being fully vaccinated, compared with half of those in the bottom quartile.
But as it turns out, it is not just Republicans who have grown more distrustful since the pandemic. The drop in the number of Americans who express confidence in scientists to act in the public’s best interest includes Democrats, although it is most significant among Republicans. In 2019, 82 percent of Republicans told Pew that they had confidence in scientists to act in the public’s best interests. The Survey Center on American Life found that in May 2023, just over half of Republicans expressed a similar sentiment. Yet partisanship is not the only factor shaping attitudes toward science. Religious Americans generally express more distrust in scientists — with white evangelical Protestants the least trusting — while secular Americans are among the most trusting overall.
Distrust is also more prevalent among those who have not completed college, regardless of party. Sixty-five percent of Democrats with a high school diploma or less express some or a great deal of confidence in scientists to act in the public’s best interest, compared with 94 percent of Democrats with a bachelor’s degree or higher, an almost 30 percentage point spread.
Confidence in science has also declined considerably among some racial and ethnic minorities, most notably among Hispanic and Black Americans. Today, white Democrats are twice as likely as nonwhite Democrats to express a great deal of confidence in scientists.
Overall, a clear pattern emerges: a marked and fairly widespread decline of public confidence in science since the pandemic. While, historically, Americans’ confidence in science has remained high relative to confidence in other institutions, this gap now appears to be narrowing.
The pandemic surely played a role, especially controversial policies such as school closures and masking young children. There’s little doubt the conduct of scientific, political and media elites contributed as well — from policy mistakes like the botched rollout of diagnostic tests to mixed and misleading messaging on masking to the dishonesty of politicians who failed to follow their own rules to efforts within government, the media and the scientific community to suppress dissent.
The English sociologist Anthony Giddens once observed that modern societies are uniquely dependent on trust, particularly trust in what he termed “abstract systems.” Members of smaller traditional societies are embedded in face-to-face relationships with neighbors, friends and family members. By contrast, we are dependent on a vast array of interconnected social institutions, especially expert institutions, which involve “faceless commitments” to those we do not (and usually cannot) know personally.
It is characteristic of these abstract systems that we cannot opt out, at least not entirely. Sustaining trust in them therefore becomes a basic requirement for the functioning of modern societies. Essential to this process is what Mr. Giddens calls “access points”: interactions between lay citizens and individual members (or representatives) of abstract systems; think of experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci or even your family physician.
Such interactions provide opportunities for experts vested with authority not only to exemplify the requisite skills but also to exhibit the character traits — rectitude, professionalism, disinterestedness — needed to generate and sustain the trust of those lay individuals who depend on them. If your doctors lie to you or put their financial interests ahead of yours, you will probably stop trusting them. If their behavior appears egregious enough, it might shake your confidence in the entire medical establishment. Access points are where trust is established and sustained or broken and lost; they are vulnerabilities in abstract systems.
The Covid-19 crisis simultaneously laid bare our dependence on abstract systems and shook many Americans’ confidence in them. From this point of view, expert institutions lost the public’s trust not only because of unpopular policies but also because prominent representatives of these institutions either were or were perceived as being self-interested rather than disinterested, politically motivated rather than dispassionate. In this way, the experts appeared to many Americans to be violating the very standards of behavior on which their authority depended.
And yet not all Americans have grown distrustful since the pandemic. Though Democrats’ confidence in institutions has declined overall, our survey found that there are more Democrats who express a “great deal” of confidence in scientists compared with those who expressed a similar level of confidence in a 2016 Pew survey. These Americans might see the criticism of pandemic policies by their political opponents as wholly justified. For them, officials such as Dr. Fauci are simply following the science and so deserve our trust and gratitude.
One explanation for this divergence may be what political scientists call negative partisanship, the propensity of some voters to adopt positions in opposition to their political opponents. Polarization of trust in science during the years leading up to the pandemic was in part attributable to increases of trust among Democrats, not just decreases among Republicans. This suggests that some Democrats may be growing relatively more trusting because Republicans are growing relatively more distrustful — and vice versa.
Could we be entering a new political order polarized around institutional trust? Our increasing tendency to treat trust in scientific experts as markers of political tribe suggests as much.
A politics of trust would bode ill not only for expert institutions but also for democratic society. Trust may be indispensable to the functioning of modern societies. But too much trust in large, impersonal systems of expert knowledge is antithetical to democratic self-governance. A healthy politics strikes a balance between the two: institutional trust leavened by healthy skepticism. Trust and skepticism are dispositions that must be balanced within parties — indeed, within individual people — not bifurcated along partisan lines.
A politics suspended between radical skepticism and uncritical trust would become unmoored from common reference points and, almost by definition, preclude compromise and accommodation. Experts would be either angels or demons rather than human beings whose expertise we need but who nevertheless sometimes err or even put their own interests above the public’s.
Restoring public trust — as Dr. Cohen of the C.D.C. aims to do — is therefore necessary for not only expert institutions but arguably also democratic society itself. But trust is a two-way street. Restoring it will require careful and perhaps even painful self-scrutiny on the part of those institutions to learn why they lost the confidence of so many Americans during the past four years.